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CMAJ. Apr 21, 1998; 158(8): 1037–1040.
PMCID: PMC1229226

Management of common musculoskeletal problems: a survey of Ontario primary care physicians.


BACKGROUND: In Canada, primary care physicians manage most musculoskeletal problems. However, their training in this area is limited, and some aspects of management may be suboptimal. This study was conducted to examine primary care physicians' management of 3 common musculoskeletal problems, ascertain the determinants of management and compare management with that recommended by a current practice panel. METHODS: A stratified computer-generated random sample of 798 Ontario members of the College of Family Physicians of Canada received a self-administered questionnaire by mail. Respondents selected various items in the management of 3 hypothetical patients: a 77-year-old woman with a shoulder problem, a 64-year-old man with osteoarthritis of the knee and a 30-year-old man with an acutely hot, swollen knee. Scores reflecting the proportion of recommended investigations, interventions and referrals selected for each scenario were calculated and examined for their association with physician and practice characteristics and physician attitudes. RESULTS: The response rate was 68.3% (529/775 eligible physicians). For the shoulder problem, all of the recommended items were chosen by the majority of respondents. However, of the items not recommended, ordering blood tests was selected by almost half (242 [45.7%]) as was prescribing an NSAID (236 [44.7%]). For the knee osteoarthritis the majority of respondents chose the recommended items except exercise (selected by only 175 [33.1%]). Of the items not recommended, tests were chosen by about half of the respondents and inappropriate referrals (chiefly for orthopedic surgery) were chosen by a quarter. For the acutely hot knee, the majority of physicians chose all of the recommended items except use of ice or heat (selected by only 188 [35.6%]). Although most (415 [78.5%]) of the respondents selected the recommended joint aspiration for this scenario, 84 (15.9%) omitted this investigation or referral to a specialist. The selection of recommended items was strongly associated with training in musculoskeletal specialties during medical school and residency. INTERPRETATION: Primary care physicians' management of 3 common musculoskeletal problems was for the most part in accord with panel recommendations. However, the unnecessary use of diagnostic tests, inappropriate prescribing of NSAIDs, low use of patient-centred options such as exercise, and lack of diagnostic suspicion of infectious arthritis are cause for concern. The results point to the need for increased exposure to musculoskeletal problems during undergraduate and residency training and in continuing medical education.

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Selected References

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